One of StartupYard’s earliest success stories, Brand Embassy is an innovative, rapidly growing company, tackling “social customer care,” and customer relationship management.
Using this plug-and-play cloud solution, large and small companies can communicate directly with their customers via popular social media channels, like Facebook and Twitter- channels that are increasingly favored by customers looking for the convenience of chatting via social media, and looking to avoid playing email and phone tag with slow and unresponsive customer care teams.
I recently spoke with Vit Horky, Brand Embassy’s co-founder and CEO, about the history of Brand Embassy, what the company is doing today, and what their future plans look like.
How did you and Damian Brhel, the other co-founder, start working together?
It’s a funny story that starts off in Bageterie Boulevard on Vodickova [in the center of Prague] more than 10 years ago. I was looking to hire a developer for Inspiro Solutions, a Prague-based digital marketing agency I founded in 2004, and I didn’t even have an office to hold interviews. Even though Damian was only 14 at the time I didn’t let his age overshadow the interest I had in his CV. We met, we hit it off and decided to work together on a project. One project led to another and eventually led to Damian being appointed as Technical Director of Inspiro Solutions. He was a far superior developer than the rest even though he was outranked professionally and in terms of age.
I guess it’s also worth noting I was only 17 at the time. So a teenager managing an even younger teenager!
What are your professional backgrounds?
I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. When I was 12 years old at summer camp, and a temporary vegetarian, I would take the steak that was part of the canteen lunch and re-sell it to kids who wanted more. I guess that’s where it all began!
By the time I was 17 I founded my first company, Inspiro Solutions, which has since become one of the leading social media agencies in Central Europe. I diversified my company portfolio by launching Inspiro Creative, a software distribution company that became a Gold Partner of AVG Technologies and has served over 10,000 customers since that time.
After several years on the agency side of things, I was fed up working on other people’s projects. I wanted to build something that served a real purpose, that had meaning. It’s that desire to do more than just marketing campaigns that really pushed us to launch Brand Embassy in 2011.
As for Damian, he’s a bit a Mark Zuckerberg :laughs:. He didn’t go to university because he simply didn’t have time – he was already pursuing his dreams. Damian is self taught and has been doing development projects by himself since his early teens.
The agency world was heavily focused on the domestic market, and project driven. Damian wanted something that was more product driven with a global scale that could actually have a positive impact on the way people communicate. Both on the same page, we made a successful exit to focus on the launch of Brand Embassy.
When Brand Embassy first applied to Startupyard, how did you envision the product and future of the company?
We went to Startupyard with a product that was a combination of software and people. Brand Embassy 1.0 was split between the software and the actual service – rather than focusing on selling the power of the technology, we bundled this with providing actual customer service for brands that didn’t know how to manage social customer service.
9 out of 10 contact center agents are only trained to receive or place phone calls, while 68% of customers prefer to use channels other than phone. With this in mind, Brand Embassy kept a part of their “agency” background, if you will, to help assist brands that simply didn’t know what do with social customer care – from both a technological and staffing perspective.
Then and now, the vision remains “making people happy.” Better customer service as an industry standard means better service for you, me, your mother, your brother, your friends and your colleagues. Delivering happiness through better customer service, via our technology, is still our vision.
How, specifically, did those plans change during and following the accelerator?
During the period Brand Embassy was with Startupyard, the mentors we connected with pushed Brand Embassy to focus on product and scalability. They taught us to look further down the road and think about how we could eliminate the “service” or “human” part of our offering and focus on the technology.
The networking opportunities that we had, from conferences in London to introductions to some of our first clients in our home market, were irreplaceable.
How did Brand Embassy gain its first large investment?
We closed a $1 million seed round investment in February 2014 from two venture capital funds, Rockaway Capital and Spread Capital.
While the investors saw the connection and potential between social media and customer service, I learned that they were more interested in investing in people they believed in rather than the business. They viewed social media marketing software as direct competition to overcome. When in reality, the solutions and reason to invest – from a client’s side – in various technologies is very different. Brand Embassy is first and foremost built for customer service, not marketing – while the opposite can be said for “social media marketing” solutions.
Now, our investors have become convinced by both the capabilities of myself and Damian, as well as the product itself.
Here’s a look at our growth to prove that point:
- 300% YOY revenue growth for 3 consecutive years
- 2013 client portfolio: 80% domestic / 20% foreign
- 2014 client portfolio: 80% foreign / 20% domestic
- late 2011: first telco client (Telefonica O2 CZ)
- By 2012: all mobile operators in the Czech Republic
- By 2014: global market leader in social customer service software for telco
- 2012: 5 employees
- late 2014: 15 employees
- mid 2015: 30 (doubled)
- 2016: still hiring!
Can you share a few case studies and testimonials about Brand Embassy?
Sure! A recent case study showed that O2, one of the Czech Republic’s largest Telco operators, reduced response time by 70% and increased customer satisfaction by 90% using Brand Embassy. O2 fundamentally improved their “guru” concept with Brand Embassy which put customer service and knowledgeable agents at the forefront for their marketing campaign. They were able to change their brand reputation and position themselves as a responsive company that actually listens to their customers.
Dusan Simonovic, Social Media Specialist at O2, CZ said: “Brand Embassy connects all our social channels into one space with efficient team collaboration and good workflow for providing fast answers. Flexibility with customization is also a great benefit”
We also received this glowing testimonial from Phil Wilson, Social Media Communication Manager at Vodafone UK: “We’ve seen a major change in the way our customers want to communicate with us. They demand more than just marketing on social media, they want customer service. We believe it’s our job to deliver that exceptional service. That’s why we’ve invested in customer service technology from Brand Embassy, and together we’re well on our way to achieving our goals.”
Brand Embassy was also named a top rated enterprise social media management software by TrustRadius.
Has hiring been a major challenge? How has BE gone about hiring new people?
Yes, it’s been a challenge, but we are progressing.
We doubled the number of employees in the last 6 months and are still actively hiring. We have a brilliantly diverse workforce across commercial, product and marketing and operations.
Our team of 30, all in Prague, now cover 8 countries including USA, Morocco, Uzbekistan and The Philippines. We’re like a mini United Nations here!
Historically, we were focusing on hard skills and number of years of professional experience. We found that those people didn’t necessarily have the cultural fit or drive we were looking for. We had to part ways with some very talented people because of this disconnect.
We learned the hard way that it’s more important to find people who are a great company culture fit than those who have x years of experience with x,y,z skills. We want to be happy with them and we want them to be happy with us.
Brand Embassy has a unique brand story. How did that develop?
There are two reasons why we have the “Bee Story.” First, it’s because we don’t want to be another boring software company. The Bee Story helps us add some coolness and fun to our messaging and branding. It also helps us stand out in the crowd, as more than just a software company. We are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise pretty stuffy market.
In addition, the Bee Story helps us explain the benefits of integrated customer care in a very intuitive way. We found that we needed a strong analogy to help describe the importance that efficiency and a clean process have in digital customer service. Bees are fascinating creatures that work in an intelligent hive. That’s just what Brand Embassy aims to be. Our approach, then, is analogous with a natural one that is inherently easy to understand, when you think about it.
What are the significant challenges of selling your solution to small and medium sized businesses?
A challenge we faced in recent years was the inability to service our smaller clients and offer a solution that fit their needs and budget. They wanted us and we wanted them, but we simply didn’t have the resources to work with them and enterprise clients were prioritized.
Only a few weeks ago, we launched our online sales channel (self-service) and we already have plenty of SME clients starting with Brand Embassy every week.
They are all small business and agencies from around the world.
We see big potential in small e-shops and small business owners who must effectively manage their impatient digital customers too. Especially for e-shops whose customers are 100% accustomed to doing things online. They shop online, they want customer service online.
Along with the introduction of our online sales channel, we are introducing a package for these SME’s that starts at $39 / user / month.
Which competitors do you see as vying for the same core audience as Brand Embassy, and why is BE a better choice for your core customers?
There are many solutions that claim to provide social customer service, however, they usually fall into one of two categories. They’re either legacy solutions that have added social as an add-on, but they are difficult to use because handling a public inquiry on social media is something completely different from receiving a phone call.
Or, they are marketing-first solutions designed for running campaigns and building online communities, but can’t handle high conversation volumes and are generally managed by people who have many other responsibilities outside of customer service.
We fill the gap, offering solutions that are built for social and customer service specifically, handling high volumes and making social customer service smart and enjoyable both for the customers and agents.
For Brand Embassy, it’s not only about social media customer service. It’s about unifying the entire customer service experience across all digital channels.
We’ve increasingly seen that non-loyal Zendesk clients from Central Europe are coming over to Brand Embassy. They’ve been using Zendesk out of necessity, but it’s too complicated and it’s not built for social media – social is just an add on to a more traditional help desk solution. It lacks efficiency – everything other than email is a plugin. Brand Embassy has these digital channels built into the core of our platform.